In Japan’s long history, there are lots of instances of foreign culture unexpectedly seeping into Japanese culture. It’s why a stapler is called a “Hotchkiss” in Japanese, and why a lot of Japanese choirs have a Croatian aria in their repertoire.

But foreign culture slipped in in more obvious ways too. One of the biggest eras of Japanese history was the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened up to the world and invited foreign influence into the country.

Even with all of that foreign influence in Japan, it’s surprising that one of the most longlasting figures from the Meiji era has been an American man. Even though William S. Clark has been dead for over a century, most people in Japan recognize his legacy today.

Soldier, Scientist, Gentleman

William S. Clark was a badass 19th century renaissance man. He was a colonel in the Civil War, the president of a university, and the president of a mining company. Plus, like all men of that era, he had sweet facial hair.


The knowledge we want, the mustache we need.

But none of these things are why Clark is remembered today in Japan. Clark is known for his work as a foreign advisor to Japan during the Meiji Restoration.

He was hired on by the Japanese government to establish a college in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and bring Western-style education to Japan.

A former president at an American university, Clark had no trouble getting into the swing of things. He built Sapporo Agricultural College from the ground up, quickly bonding with local leaders and, of course, the students themselves.


Photo by shimakid

Clark’s time in Sapporo was especially appreciated because of Hokkaido’s standing in Japan. At times, Hokkaido can feel very isolated from the rest of Japan; a separate, distinct, sometimes underdeveloped island.

The fact that Clark put so much hard work and care into working with people in Hokkaido meant a lot to the people there. It was clear to them that Clark cared a great deal about Hokkaido’s well-being.

But Clark’s time in Hokkaido wasn’t to be long. He returned to the US after a little under a year in Japan.

As he left, Clark said something that put him in the history books. He shouted to his students

Boys, be ambitious!

. . . well, maybe. There are a ton of different stories about what Clark actually said that fateful day. Variations include:

  • Boys, be ambitious, like this old man!
  • Boys, be ambitious for Christ!
  • Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for that attainment of all that a man ought to be.

But even if we don’t have the quote right, it doesn’t matter. Clark’s legacy has been imprinted upon Japan.

Immortal Words

Boys, be ambitious” (or 少年よ大志を抱け) has become familiar saying in Japan. It’s not the kind of thing you hear in everyday conversation, but it’s something that people (especially around Hokkaido) know about. I’d compare it to the English saying “Keep calm and carry on.”

Even if it’s not an idiom people use every day, it’s been immortalized in other ways. “Boys, be ambitious” can be found carved into stone and written in metal in tributes to Clark.


But it doesn’t stop there. “Boys, be ambitious” is used in ads, TV shows, anime, movies, music, and virtually any other form of media that you can think of.

Given few, if any, of the media that use the saying have anything to do with Hokkaido or Clark, but that’s beside the point.


Photo by isobrown

Even if only a few Japanese people know who William S. Clark is, I’d expect that he’d be happy that his message has been carried so far for so long, inspiring people across Japan to be a little more determined than they might normally.

  • Shollum

    So, what are the girls suppose to do? Get back to the kitchen?

  • Ginger

    It’s also in/the title of a couple of j-pop songs

  • Sami

    I’d always wondered why so many anime and JPOP songs seemed to use that line! That’s cool to know!!!

  • Mescale
  • lulu

    I have been there to that statue. There is also a lot of sheep around there!

  • Heather Meadows

    I posed next to a William S. Clark statue with his immortal phrase at Hokkaido University in 2001. Didn’t realize it had seeped so far into popular culture. At the time I just found it hilariously old fashioned.!i=15981304&k=7LpZ8fS

  • Hashi’s lost brother

    I love the top picture! (Koic)(Has)hi, be ambitious!

  • Sora No Woto


  • Flora

    I think that was the point of that last picture – they’re starting to retool that saying towards girls nowadays. Took them 100 years to do it, but better late than never.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    From the looks of the ad, they’re supposed to go to space. But not ambitiously, I guess.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Personally, I prefer Disgaea’s advice of “少年よ邪心を抱け,” but that’s just me.

  • lychalis


  • Tofugu Radical

    Koichi Tanigunichi? Is that your surname, Koichi?

  • Me

    Ahaha, reminds me there’s an idolmaster song called 乙女よ大志を抱け, now it all makes sense.

  • besterthenyou

    “most people in Japan recognize his legacy today”

    “Even if only a few Japanese people know who William S. Clark is”

    …. huh?

  • Rikke

    Well, it made me think of “Boys Be Suspicious” by Nightmare…

  • Ron Moses

    There’s a Miyavi song called “Girls, Be Ambitious”… so according to Miyavi, just do the same.

    I love knowing where that song title originates, btw. Thanks!

  • Shollum

    They don’t know who the man is, but they recognize the phrase he supposedly left behind.

    Basically, think of some famous line, then try and see if you actually know who the person who said it was, what they did for the world, etc. Chances are, if it’s not someone you learned about in detail, you can’t really answer those things.

  • Tony

    I didn’t know this, wow that was quite the interesting read!


    The KPOP group, Dal Shabet, just put out a new song called “Be Ambitious”.